Posted by: Bill von Achen | July 16, 2010

The Entrepreneur as Predator?

Bastille Day, celebrated last Wednesday, July 14th, is France’s national holiday, celebrating that country’s liberation from monarch rule.  But when it comes to tyrants, it seems that at least some French academics have found their modern day equivalent in entrepreneurs. 

I just finished reading a remarkable book, From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero, penned by Michelle Villette and Catherine Vuillermot, French professors of sociology and business history respectively, and published in English in 2009.  I use the word ‘remarkable’ here to describe this book because I can’t recall ever reading a more deeply cynical and suspicious view of business and entrepreneurship.   

This purported academic study researched the backgrounds and careers of 32 of the world’s most successful business leaders, including Sam Walton and Jim Clark (Silicon Graphics, Netscape) here in the United States, Sir Richard Branson in the United Kingdom, Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA) in Sweden, and several luminaries of the French business world, including Bernard Arnault (LVMH) and Francois Pinault (Pinault-Printemps).  As retold in this book, the stories of their journeys from often simple beginnings to great success are fascinating and instructive.

But the authors’ true agenda is never far from the story telling.  We learn, for example, that Sam Walton was extremely harsh and demanding of his employees, and that his strategy of opening Wal-Mart stores in underserved areas virtually destroyed traditional small businesses in those towns.  Jim Clark’s decision to push for a Netscape initial public offering even while the company was still loosing money is, for the authors, the root cause of the technology stock bubble of the late 1990s and the focus on a company’s potential rather than its profits as the basis for its value.

These and other examples are marshaled to serve the book’s main, anti-business premise, that is, that “predation is what makes innovation possible,” and that “to finance innovation, one has to engage in predatory activities.”  For Villette and Vuillermot, “good economic management and technical skills have never been, all by themselves, sufficient to determine success in business.”  Instead, they argue that:

“The businessman is defined by his ability to create, always and everywhere, the greatest possible dissymmetries possible, by playing on the subjective and changeable nature of the value of goods and on the ambiguities of social morality and law.”  

In the challenging world of business, we never have to look far to find villains and tyrants masking as business leaders.  But blindly equating successful entrepreneurs with predators is third-rate scholarship at best.  More important, it’s a gross injustice to business owners and entrepreneurs who are far more often motivated by a burning desire to build something that hasn’t been built before, or to create something that others have only dreamed about.  The real-world examples of millions of successful entrepreneurs defy such cynical stereotyping.

What do you think?  Pleae post your ideas and comments here.


Responses

  1. Interesting book review Bill! I wonder if this title is on the President’s summer reading list?

  2. sounds like our current Federal administration- anti-business and arrogant about it.

  3. The arthors could have a skewed view if without presenting a complete package for entrepreneurs. That said, I believe this is something every business leader, or indeed every human being, is facing when making critical decisions in their settings throughout the history. How do we see risk vs opportunity, self vs the world, take vs give … We take one position or the other. Civilization helps but the human hunger is always there. Sometimes we may not even be aware.


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